All in all, 2016 was a trying year for the truth. Fake news is flourishing, and according to some observers, the U.S. has elected a president who not only does not hesitate to lie, but also appears determined to exploit an increasingly apparent lack of shared reality. Even objective facts are being marginalized. In a recent poll of 1,011 U.S. adults, more than half of Republicans (52%) said they believe Trump won the popular vote — in bold defiance of the widely distributed fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly 2.9 million. False information today seems to spread more easily, and then stick.
In fact, the Oxford Dictionary 2016 word of the year is “post-truth,” which it defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
“Clearly, the acidity of the recent election brought a lot of this stuff out of the woodwork,” says Joseph Turow, associate dean for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Much of the Trump campaign’s sowing of confusion around facts appears to have been quite purposeful, and it’s had a corrosive effect on the nature of … the ways in which people talk about the democratic process — the sense that it is not clear whom to believe anymore, and what is the role of the press in giving us what’s happened. Do people believe the press anymore?”
Almost 40% of Trump supporters responding to a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey said the stock market has declined during President Obama’s tenure, when in fact the Dow Jones Industrial Average has more than doubled. Normally, rational media analysis could combat that kind of false impression. “But that is going to be a really tough [battle], because the narrative is out there that the media is part of this,” says Wharton marketing professor and identity theorist Americus Reed. “Trump’s really smart [move] was to create a distrust of the media, and [to cause people to question] where would you go to get rational, objective analysis.… The media has been tainted for Trump supporters. That’s the real danger here — that argument is out there, creating a precedent around it being okay to just make statements that have no basis in reality. That is perhaps okay in the entertainment world, but not for all these sensitive relationships that might go wrong when you are Tweeting about Taiwan in the middle of the night.”
Disregard for established facts festers in the political realm, but is not confined to it. Indian officials have grappled with several fake news stories surrounding the release of new 2,000-rupee banknotes, including one claiming currency was printed with radioactive ink, the BBC reports. In another case related to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting, a 57-year-old Florida woman was charged this month with threatening the father of a six-year-old boy killed in the 2012 attack. She had been frequenting websites promoting the conspiracy theory that the government staged the shooting to press an anti-gun agenda.
“We’d like to believe there is a marketplace of ideas, and that the truth will win out. It’s not true; that’s not how the world works.” –Maurice Schweitzer
Having a president-elect who is, so far, unwilling or unable to distinguish truth from falsehoods creates great uncertainty, says Wharton management professor Katherine Klein, vice dean of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. “Part of the danger here is that people may start to believe that no one can be trusted, that everyone is peddling a story. It makes it so you don’t know who to trust and who to believe,” she says. “If one side is making these bold, inflammatory claims that are getting a lot of attention, it’s awfully hard for the other side not to want to do the same thing. On the one hand, I keep thinking of Walter Cronkite — where is there a Walter Cronkite? Where are those trusted, middle-of-the-road figures everyone can believe? On the other hand, when you have this kind of poisonous atmosphere, would people believe even Cronkite? Is there room for such a person?”
The Rise of Fake News
One clear symptom of our current state of affairs is the increasingly harmful impact of fake news stories. Shortly after the U.S. presidential election, for example, some Trump supporters called for a boycott of PepsiCo products after reading fake news stories with a fabricated quote from PepsiCo CEO and chairperson Indra Nooyi saying she didn’t want their business. In a flash, the parent company of Doritos, Quaker Oats and Gatorade was on the defensive.
If you are a certain kind of discerning reader, you know the drill: You scroll across something on Facebook too outlandish to believe, or merely fishy, and rather than clicking, you toggle to The New York Times or Wall Street Journal. If you don’t find it there, what you saw on Facebook probably wasn’t true. But for every reader willing to go through that routine, millions of others click on fake news, read it and believe it.
Some of these nuggets fall squarely into the category of the ridiculous. But many are more artful, like the fabricated Nooyi quote. Increasingly, fake news is sending out ripples of chaos – where it undermines public discourse, puts businesses on high alert and perhaps threatens the orderly functioning of democracy itself.
Facebook, with 1.79 billion active monthly users worldwide in the third quarter of 2016, is a major bazaar for fake news, and many observers say that it played a role in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. A fake news item about the Pope endorsing Trump was shared about a million times on the site. Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that the site influenced the election as “pretty crazy.”
Not so crazy, actually, some observers say. Headlines on fake online news stories were deemed accurate by readers about 75% of the time, according to an online survey of 3,015 U.S. adults conducted between November 28 and December 1 by Ipsos Public Affairs for BuzzFeed News. The survey found that The New York Times and CNN were cited as “a major source of news” by 18% and 27% of those polled, respectively. But also highly read were Facebook, Twitter and other sources where fake news is found in various shades from outright fabrication to more subtle forms of deceit.
“In a way, the problem with ‘fake news’ isn’t really the ‘fake’ — supermarket tabloids have been doing that for decades,” notes Patrick Stokes, senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, and author of “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” a popular essay on theconversation.com.
Think Bat Boy Found in West Virginia Cave!, he says, referring to a Weekly World News cover story from 1992 that caught on. “The bigger problem is the fracturing of the media…. Until recently, the media largely agreed on a given set of facts, even if they differed on which facts to report and how to report them. But increasingly, it seems you can choose your media in order to choose your facts, and reject media sources whose facts you don’t like. In other words, the media has, to a degree at least, ceased to be an epistemic authority common to everyone in a given society. That’s very new territory, and very scary territory, to find ourselves in.”
The reason the onslaught of fake news is particularly important to consider is because “we’d like to believe there is a marketplace of ideas and that the truth will win out. It’s not true; that’s not how the world works,” says Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions. “It is not the case that the truth always wins out. In extreme cases, it can be a very long and torturous process.”
Years before fake news on the Internet became a phenomenon, social psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert made the case that acceptance of an idea comes automatically with comprehension of that idea, and that rejection of the idea comes afterwards and takes more effort. People, when “faced with shortages of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, may fail to unaccept the ideas that they involuntarily accept during comprehension,” Gilbert wrote in “How Mental Systems Believe,” published in 1991 in American Psychologist.
“All else being equal, people tend to lock into information that confirms their existing beliefs and lock out information that contradicts them.” –G. Richard Shell
“[Dutch philosopher Baruch] Spinoza had a similar theory,” points out G. Richard Shell, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics. “We normally think about this belief-formation process as working the other way around — i.e., we take in data, think about things, and then form beliefs about the truth and falsity of it. If Gilbert is right, then fake news leverages this ‘believe it is true first’ cognitive process. That certainly comports with the ‘Big Lie’ propaganda tactic of totalitarian regimes like Hitler.”
Such processing could make fake news so “real” that someone might take a gun and go to a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor to protect children from abuse, to cite one prominent recent fake news case, dubbed Pizzagate, says Shell. “If the fake news confirms an already-held belief (formed earlier by the believe-first process), then the ‘confirmation bias’ kicks in and shuts down the analysis stage — rendering the news ‘real’ for the consumer of it. All else being equal, people tend to lock into information that confirms their existing beliefs and lock out information that contradicts them. That is why it is so hard to talk someone out of a belief in UFOs…. If the person is surrounded by people who share his or her beliefs, then they think ‘everyone’ shares the belief. And it becomes as real to them as the moon and the sun are to the rest of us.”
Social media sites like Facebook are of course discrete solar systems of self-affirming beliefs. But Facebook has been ambivalent about taking action, which reflects its own reluctance to own up to the fact that it is essentially a news publishing platform, actively or passively curating news stories and affecting what people think and how they react to news events as they unfold — or are fabricated. Now, after a great deal of pressure, Facebook is testing initiatives in which users may flag suspicious stories. Facebook is working with a number of organizations, including Factcheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at Penn, to link fake news stories to ones disputing the false claims.
But fed up users are already taking matters into their own hands. Last month, a small group of students at a hackathon at Princeton University developed FiB: a Chrome browser extension to help weed out fake news. “Just before the hackathon, results for the election had come out, and people were blaming Facebook for being responsible for fake news being circulated, which led to an unfair election,” explains Nabanita De, 22, a computer science master’s student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who helped develop FiB. “Facebook at that point didn’t want to take the blame and didn’t feel they were responsible for fake news. So we students thought of doing something for the masses so that next time, be it politics or whatever, no one is ever misled.”
After the students built this project, they learned more about consumers’ susceptibility to fake news, including a Stanford study that found teenagers couldn’t tell the difference between fake news and real news, and often clicked on links before trusting a news source on social media. “This is definitely scary considering millions of posts are shared on Facebook everyday with billions of people coming online every day,” De says. “And it becomes so easy to target these people, especially when not everyone has the domain knowledge on all topics and people do not have the time to verify everything they are reading.”
FiB examines the user’s feed as he or she is scrolling through Facebook, and retrieves links posted in Facebook statuses, De explains. For every link, it assigns a score based on credibility and checks for malware/clickbait/phishing content. If the score is below a certain threshold, it tags the post as non-verified — or, otherwise, verified. If any post is non-verified, it retrieves information like keywords, headers from that link, and utilizes Google search to see if any similar content has been posted by more credible sources. Once it finds a credible source, it leads the user to that source. The extension is currently under review by Google, says De, and will be available soon. Of course, any such system depends on the user self-selecting as being interested in the truth.
Eric T. Bradlow, Wharton marketing professor and faculty director of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative, says there is promise in the technologies and strategies being developed by Facebook, De and others. “There are a lot of new statistical ways to assess fake versus real text based on natural language processing methods. Firms are using this all the time to understand real versus fake reviews. This is now a real business for the marketing industry,” he notes. “I have been very impressed with the large, mass-scale, automated methods that firms are trying to use to filter out fake news. I believe that they are a good ‘first pass’ approach to screening it out. No automated system is perfect, but it is a good start.”
No immediate remedies to fake news seem likely, and businesses may want to anticipate strategies for dealing with it. “The human appetite for scandal and sensational news is not going to stop any time soon. That means organizations need to take the time now to plan for how to handle a fake news scandal, so they’re not left scrambling if one comes up,” says Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Chicago digital marketing firm Arment Dietrich. “If a fake news item targets your company or one of your executives, you want to quickly and transparently let your community — and the media, depending upon the severity of the issue — know this is a fake news item without any merit.”
“I keep thinking of Walter Cronkite — where is there a Walter Cronkite? Where are those trusted, middle-of-the-road figures everyone can believe?” –Katherine Klein
Although it can be tempting for some executives to not want to ‘dignify it with a reply,’ no response can often be seen as giving merit to the fake news story’s validity, Dietrich notes. “While you don’t want to get in a Twitter debate about it, you do want to make sure to stand up for your brand publicly and debunk the story.”
What it means for businesses, Klein says, is that they must be “enormously careful with reputation, with transparency, with living their values and not making them window dressing, because authenticity and perceived authenticity are going to be really important. The more that consumers and stakeholders say of a given company ‘I know and believe what this company stands for,’ the better. That has always been the case, but in the current environment, that is even more the case.”
Dietrich says she “really loved” what Vanity Fair just did in response to president-elect Trump’s tweet about the magazine’s journalism standards. Vanity Fair recently published an unfavorable piece about the restaurant in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York. “They knew it would solicit a response. They had a ‘dark’ site ready to go with a banner that read, ‘The Publication Trump Doesn’t Want You to Read,’ Dietrich says. “While that’s not fake news or the same as the PepsiCo CEO, per se, the tactic works in any crisis situation. Be prepared. Even if you think it’s not possible to be the victim of fake news, Murphy’s Law states if you are not prepared it will happen to you. It’s pretty evident any well-known brand is going to be attacked — either with a fake news story or with a critical tweet from Trump. Add those two scenarios to your crisis planning and be ready if it happens.”
Trump tweeted a bit of fake news after the magazine published the highly critical review by Tina Nguyen, whose headline trumpeted that “Trump Grill could be the worst restaurant in America.” Predictably, the president-elect sent a tweet about Vanity Fair’s “really poor numbers.” But circulation had actually been up, and it received an even bigger bump that reached 42,000 new subscriptions within days after his tweet — one hundred times greater than the daily average.
“The fake news business is going to be great for journalism in the long run,” Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter told The New York Times, calling Trump the Fake Newser in Chief. “Proper news organizations should thrive under this,” he noted in the article.
For the moment, though, Trump’s demonization of the media has caught on with his core supporters. Reporters at Trump rallies have been threatened, and often require extra security. The solution? “Calling it out and refusing to fall prey to the intimidation, which is what is going on here,” says Reed. “It’s going to be up to journalists to roll up their sleeves and take this as an important moment for maintaining the integrity of journalism.”
“Organizations need to take the time now to plan for how to handle a fake news scandal, so they’re not left scrambling if one comes up.” –Gini Dietrich
One critical question is whether the damage from fake news can be reversed, says Bradlow. “There is a lot of theory to suggest that fake negative news followed by positive restorative news will still damage the source. This is why fake news can be so impactful,” he says.
Countries across the globe are taking notice, and particularly in Europe. In Germany, the prospect that fake news could affect upcoming elections has spurred a proposal to fine Facebook 500,000 euros for every instance in which it does not remove a fake new story from its site within 24 hours, and ministers are considering laws that would require social media companies to set up local offices to deal with complaints. Fearing a swaying of elections, Italian government officials are leaning on Facebook to curb fake news.
But aren’t people smarter than we think? For every person who believes Pizzagate and gets into his car with a rifle, there are millions of others who simply roll their eyes and scroll down the Facebook newsfeed. Isn’t this to some extent the triumph of the odd anecdote – the fact that we hear most loudly about those being fooled?
“I think that is right,” says Schweitzer. “Most people are not fooled most of the time. I believe in the American public, so most people most of the time are pretty discerning. The problem in the short term is that many people can be misled, like what happened with the [F.B.I. director James] Comey investigation [into Hillary Clinton], and the Trump rants getting media attention. There are short moments in time where things may tip one way or the other, and it only takes one guy to show up with a rifle for things to go badly wrong. And so the fact that some people might strongly believe the wrong things can really have profound and bad consequences. There is a long tail for some fake news, and a vocal, energetic minority can really create problems.”